Machines – Łukasz Skąpski
Maszyny (Machines) is a catalogue of so-called “sams” – tractors made at home by farmers according to their own design and with use of the available – usually recycled – parts of other vehicles. This practice reaches back deep into the times of the Polish People's Republic, which is also when the majority of the items presented here were made.
Łukasz Skąpski's photo documentation, maintained in a simple, typological convention, shows vehicles from the Podhale region, where these home-made vehicles were especially relevant due to the mountainous landscape, which mass-produced vehicles, on top of being much more costly, did not cope with too well. The photographs are accompanied by the technical specifications of individual tractors, while the entire collection is complemented by essays contextualising Skąpski's documentary record from artistic, literary, and anthropological perspectives.
The Maszyny series, produced in the analogue medium format, constituted the foundation of the artist's doctoral thesis, which he defended at the Faculty of Multimedia Communication of the Poznań Academy of Fine Arts. This photographic endeavour by Skąpski, hitherto known for his works leaning towards universalism and post-conceptualism (such as monochromatic photographs of the sky and optical devices constructed at home), was a conscious attempt at departing from the hermetic language of art and finding a more resonant and popular subject. Hence, Maszyny can also be read as a meta-artistic undertaking, derived from a reflection on the condition and profession of a contemporary artist. With time, as well as with the successive presentations, the project expanded – besides photographs, the artist also produced several video works.
The idea to edit Machines into a book came from the graphic designer Kuba Sowiński. It took several years to find a publisher for the book after it was designed, as a result of which the graphic solutions used in it became somewhat outdated (for instance, the characteristic slashes filling out the pages with catalogue descriptions of tractors). Regardless of that, the book turned out to be largely, and deservedly, popular, as a successful reference and revival of the typological photography traditions in Poland, and at the same time exceptional coverage of an intriguing fragment of the rediscovered material culture of the Polish People's Republic.
Skąpski is interested not just in the form of the photographed objects, but also in their functional aspects. This is only seemingly a half-hearted documentary project, as in truth Skąpski does not hide his enthusiasm towards grassroots engineering (this is especially apparent in the author's text included in the book). The Podhale bricolage resembles, and often even exceeds contemporary works of art in its richness of forms and details. These mobile sculptures, or usable installations, reveal a surprising potential – to the artist as well. With a pinch of salt, Skąpski's machines could be associated with Jean Tinguely's absurd post-industrial machines. The formal moderation and simplicity of the photographs goes well with the raw, intentional, and completely non-stylised machine constructions presented in them.
The artist set out to photograph the home-made tractors in the convention of portraiture, with their owners sitting behind the steering wheels. However, a lot of them did not want to agree to pose, and effectively more than half of the images included in the book shows only the titular machines. Wherever the owners appear, the narrative gains an additional, slightly Western-like tinge (by the way – apart from the cowboy hat featured in the cover image, there are also two pictures on which the tractor drivers are wearing American flag t-shirts – traditionally, many Gorals (Highlanders) from Podhale have either worked in the U.S. or have relatives there).
Skąpski's machine typology could also be associated with Zapis sojologiczny (Sociological Record) by Zofia Rydet, who initiated her series of thousands of images by photographing the house interiors and residents of Podhale. However, just as Rydet focused on the pre-modern cottages and rapidly deteriorating objects of material culture, Skąpski presents the accomplished process of grassroots modernisation. It is modernisation carried out in accordance with slightly archaic rules, somewhat against the central plan of the government, adapted to the Gorals' individual needs. The tractors and machines are a metaphor for activities outside of the inefficient communist system. If the official goal was to mass produce tractors that would be accessible to all farmers, then the Gorals constructed their own vehicles which met the requirements of working in a very specific area and conditions, adjusted to riding on steep slopes and transporting timber, hay, and so on. One could observe here a correspondence with the topos, which is in fact present in Polish culture, of the Podhale Gorals as a headstrong, independent, and autonomous people. Skąpski's book is, then, something more than just a typology of machines. It is an engrossing story about the outsider economy, inventiveness, and individualism.